The past, in living color

russian children on hill 1909
Lisa and I watched a special on the Library of Congress last night on PBS and were blown away by one of the exhibits, a selection of color photos from Tsarist Russia.

Yeah, you read that right. I was blown away, so made my way back over to the LOC website for more info, and found the exhibit, called “The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated.” The Tsar’s photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, invented a camera that took three black and white plates through red, green, and blue filters of the same scene; he would then project the images through colored filters for color images in a magic lantern show. The LOC has taken the plates and recreated the process digitally, applying additional corrections such as careful re-registration and color correction, to yield glorious full color recreations of Prokudin-Gorskii’s photos, which document the extent of Tsar Nicholas’s empire on the eve of revolution.
new york bowery bums 1941

In looking to see who else had written about this exhibition (which is, after all, not news), I found another treasure trove of early color photos, the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection at Indiana University. Cushman, a gifted and dedicated amateur photographer who embraced Kodachrome film as early as 1938, two years after its introduction, left an archive of more than 14,000 color slides taken between 1938 and 1969 across the US and other countries. The image quality is outstanding, the indexing superb, and the sense of dislocation even more intense than with Prokudin-Gorskii’s photos. As the introduction to the collection points out, most of us don’t have a “true color” sense of the time before about 1950. Seeing color images of Faneuil Hall before the elevated highway was raised, for instance, is mind-boggling. But Cushman looks beyond buildings, capturing, for instance, a wedding in Boston’s North End, carriage horses feeding in the Piazza Ognis in Florence, the old fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden in London, children on an old dirt road with flowers in Fairfax County near Dranesville (what is now the northern part of McLean), the Grand Coulee Dam under construction, and many others.